While most publishings managed to squeeze a review on a modern-day masterpiece mere hours after the official date of release, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is much more than a week’s run through and needs a bit more observation before tagging it as game of the year.
I understand that Konami have held week-long boot camps for the luckier sites and magazines, giving them more of an opportunity to become accustomed to the game and a bit of a head start, which is absolutely fine, but after playing for just over a week, with one hundred hours plus under my belt, that there’s far too much content to discover in a mere seven days to label a game as ‘masterpiece’ so hastily. Hence, this review will be completed in two parts to get a deeper view on Kojima’s swan song (at least under Konami).
The introduction to MGSV: TPP is a fantastic ride into an adventure that covers the events between Ground Zeroes and the original Metal Gear. A story of private armies, a rival organization and the development of Big Boss and the Diamond Dogs. With a little hand-holding to introduce new players to the mechanics, Boss wakes up in a hospital, nine years after the ending to Ground Zeroes, finding that he’s been in a coma all that time. After a few Robocop style waking scenes, the hospital comes under attack from a rival PF, hunting Boss and a new friend down to take him out of the equation, complete with hospital gowned arse-crackery for your general amusement.
With such a stunning beginning to the story, The Phantom Pain leads you to believe that you’re going to be in for quite an action packed journey. It certainly felt like playing a MGS game again while stealthily navigating your way through tight corridors and trying to get the jump on unsuspecting soldiers, intent on ending your life and dealing with your first view of a couple of the game’s bosses. That is, until you get into the game properly…
Metal Gear, for many years, has been a good mix of outdoor and indoor stealth/action gameplay and with the introduction of the ‘open world’, the outdoor environments have been upgraded massively. Unfortunately, this is my first gripe of the review. I’m only halfway through the main missions and I’ve still to see anything resembling a good indoor location… Such levels in past games only helped to heighten the tension with open corners, surveillance cameras and finding the quietest routes to your objective. Now, all there seems to be are a few sandstone buildings or linked rooms that only lead to more outdoor areas and it’s started to make me dislike the world design.
Speaking of the great outdoors, the starting area, Afghanistan, looks absolutely stunning. The glint of sunlight on the sand from the bright blue sky above… Until you’ve been playing for forty hours and realise that most of the landscape is too similar and that travelling between Kojima’s clever playgrounds is nothing but empty, dust yellow corridors with virtually little to do but find a few plants or grab some supply drops while the coast is clear.
Don’t get me wrong, Metal Gear Solid V is anything but a bad game, but there’s a lot of empty space and repetitiveness in both the scenery, storyline and gameplay. The bases, villages and outposts are all great to play, either adopting stealth or all out Michael Bay-esque action. Most are well thought out and have many routes to reach your goals. They really are exhilarating to navigate… The first couple of times you do them.
For instance, the main missions will give you some interesting objectives to complete, such as rescuing characters that will advance the story, taking out enemy tanks and sometimes throwing in a boss battle to keep you on your toes. The problem comes when you start doing side ops and figure out that you’ll be continually visiting the same areas over and over again to check off the massive list of 157.
By the third time I’d entered the same village to Fulton someone back to Mother Base, I was starting to get exhausted to the point of putting the game down and just giving up. Repetitiveness is fairly common in games, but having to replay areas so much in one play through is virtually unheard of.
While this is obviously another issue, the areas are fun enough to sneak around, holding up enemy militia, getting them to spill the beans and then spilling their blood, just in case they wake up and grass you in to their pals. There are a multitude of ways to take them out too, it’s just a shame that you’ll have to wait until later in the game to get the more interesting gadgets to play with.
When you finally move to the second part of The Phantom Pain, there’s enough difference to breathe a sigh of relief, although again, the land is dotted sparsely with adventure and most of the area is just greenery and rocks.
Storywise, there’s the usual Metal Gear fare, with long dialogues detailing the advance in nuclear weaponry, information on numerous abbreviated military forces and the insane, supernatural element that has made MGS games a bit more interesting than your usual ‘man-with-a-gun’ story.
Again, the problem is that if you can’t wait for more hour-long, glorious cinematics from the mind of Hideo Kojima, then you are going to be bitterly disappointed (or not as the internet seems to be showing). Most of the tale is relayed through the use of your trusty Sony Walkman and a cassette collection to rival that of an 80s kid who taped the charts every week for a year on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a good way to build background events, but using them to fill in story about what happens before and after missions seems a bit lazier than having cut scenes to keep you interested throughout. Maybe this was where Kojima asked for more time… Who knows?
When it was announced that Kiefer Sutherland would be taking on the voice of Big Boss, and as a fan of 24, I was pretty stoked, even though I knew I would miss David Hayter. The problem is, there’s very little in the way of conversation from Sutherland and his replies come as grunts and almost monosyllabic lines that I’m not sure if he was worth the money in the first place. I know Boss has never been massively talkative, but he’s basically mute by comparison from other games in the series.
In fact, it’s very rare that Big Boss will take part in the conversation at all and instead you get a narration from Ocelot (now voiced by Troy Baker and sounding nothing like Ocelot of old) on events leading up to missions and debriefings in the same style with a few interrogation recordings and background information that makes the Dragon Age games’ Codex look like a pamphlet in comparison. While delivered well enough, I really miss the cut scenes that show characters interacting with each other and the whole first half of the game feels very detached in terms of building bonds between any of your Diamond Dog companions.
The saving grace in all of this, are your buddies. Where once, Snake would be a lone wolf, in The Phantom Pain, Big Boss will collect a few friends to take along on operations. It’s not just people to contact via Codec or to offer advice about the barren deserts or wildlife, as that’s covered well enough by Ocelot with a tap of the R1 button… You’ll be able to take a small handful of companions (see human, animal, mech) that you pick up through normal play and they give a totally different perspective on how you complete tasks.
Your initial buddy is D-Horse, a four-legged friend to assist you in making those boring treks through desert corridors more manageable. The best use of your horse however, is getting him to take an almighty dump in the middle of a road and watching as armoured trucks hit the skids (literally) and plough into a tree off-road. He’s also not as ADD as Roach from The Witcher III and could at least pass a drunk riding test if stopped by the local coppers.
Later on, you’ll find another quadruped that is highly more useful in the field, sniffing out enemies and marking prisoners on the map to save you whipping out your handy binoculars that become so compulsory to completing missions that it’s a nice break to just sneak your way through a camp quickly and finish off what would normally be a slow but sure plod into the semi-unknown. You can interact with him too, praising him for helping you out by patting him on the head and saying ‘Good, Gooood!’, in a very bad impression of Emperor Palpatine by Mr. Sutherland. Ocelot must also have a pretty sick sense of humour as he’s stuck an eyepatch on D-Dog… Either he likes pirates or he’s taking the piss out of Big Boss.
All buddies can be ranked up via a bond meter, either by just taking them out on missions with you and by using the skills they posses by using the command wheel that allows you to issue direct orders. You can leave D-Dog in a relatively quiet area as you move towards an important and heavily guarded target and get the wee fella to start barking, drawing attention away while you slip in and get on with the task at hand. The system works brilliantly and there are some really hilarious commands to use.
While not out stabbing, shooting and anesthetising people, everyone heads back to Mother Base, Big Boss’ command outpost situated on a platform in the middle of the Indian Ocean near the Seychelles. As you complete missions, collect building materials and make GMP (the monetary unit of MGSV), you will be able to upgrade it in many, many ways.
For instance, you start with a mere command platform and a handful of soldiers and workers, which can be upgraded through using your mission bounties and by hooking enemy soldiers and prisoners of war to a balloon that carries them off to an extraction chopper and carts them back to base. Once you collect the right sort of commander, you start unlocking new types of platform, like R&D, which deals with creating weaponry and gadgets for Boss. Later on, you’ll find a medical expert and be able to open up new creation options for your inventory that help with healing, calming you down in stressful firefights and more importantly, to give some medical attention to some of the Diamond Dogs that fall ill or end up injured on Mother Base, probably of the common cold as there’s nowhere to actually go inside to get warm or so it seems.
It’s a clever system of managing your resources, picking and choosing enemies who will be beneficial to your team and quite a bit into the game, sending squads on missions to bring more revenue, troops and materials in that would take an absolute age to do through missions alone.
There is a downside however. Mother Base can be visited for a bit of a break and I’m unsure if this was another failing of budget and time for Mr. Kojima, but it all feels so barren… More so than the empty areas of Afghanistan.
All platform types can have four individual sections, the first being the main part and with most to do. There are helicopter pads, usually a great structure to mess around on and soldiers guarding the area to train with, listen to their conversations and question about the whereabouts of hidden diamonds. There are also side op target practice ranges for each so you can test out your agility with a non-lethal weapon. The rest of the areas are more or less just silos, storage and pipes… Again, losing the interesting element of exploration and an annoying desire to chuck some of your lackeys over the side, just to make things a bit more fun.
In terms of exploration, there is virtually nothing to do other than stare at bland, metallic surfaces and spend an age hunting for anywhere to go inside… You’ll find the odd secret or two and that’s as far as it goes. There is virtually nothing to compel you to return to MB, other than to grab a quick shower or when you’re summoned as part of the story to watch a couple of cut scenes (they are few and far between). This is despite guides, Kojima and everyone else on the internet telling you to keep revisiting it for surprises… Halfway though the game, I have found that I only spend a minute or two there after about five missions to get a shower and have seen a grand total of five cut scenes. Remember, I’ve been playing this for over a week.
The R&D team will help you make weaponry, along with a few specialists you’ll find in both Afghanistan and Africa. From pistols and sniper rifles, all the way to stun mines, EMP’s and handy toys that gives the game the usual Metal Gear sense of flair and fun. Finally unlocking some of these makes planning assaults a hell of a lot more interesting.
I started to get into the game more when I could set up a talking decoy, set it down in front of a group of sentries and deploying it when I managed to slip behind them. With their attention elsewhere, I set up a couple of gas mines in the entry way and stood close-by with a cardboard box donned, sporting a half-naked model stuck to it to draw them into my trap… The drooling idiots were soon a gang of sleeping babies, four in all and on their way to slavery at Mother Base in a matter of a few hilarious minutes.
It’s times like these that pull you away from the precipice of monotony of repetition and get you back into the mindset to continue playing. Without these clever devices, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain would just be a ho-hum, semi-open world shooter and this is where Kojima excels.
The specialists that are mentioned also open up customisation. Find a special gunsmith and you’ll be able to muck around with weapon attachments and being able to suppress weapons that were previously too noisy to take on a stealth mission. You’ll be able to change the look, weaponry and function on everything, including your support chopper, companions and even Mother Base.
If you fancy riding a bright pink helicopter into a dangerous hotzone, while blasting Maneater and spitting a salvo of hot lead from the assault cannon into a base full of stunned guards, MGSV has you covered… Probably not the sanest way to infiltrate, but it is bloody hilarious. It’s even better from afar when you call in a support chopper to blast missiles and you can hit share to show everyone how much of a silly bastard you are.
The soundtrack is really good too, with the usual orchestral score and themes to pick out the more serious and intelligent nature of the story. In between, you can fire up some well-known 80’s tracks on your Walkman to accompany you on missions. I decided to set myself a challenge on rescuing all the hostages without being caught from a prison camp in the time it took for Kids in America to finish and buggered it up a couple of times before I got into the rhythm… There are so many things in TPP to make things infinitely more exciting and ludicrous, that this is where I find this installment of the series shines.
A short word about boss battles too. I have only met three so far and only one has lived up to what you would expect of a MGS game. The first is not what would be commonly tagged as an actual boss fight but it can be difficult, the second was somewhere along the lines of The End sniper fight in MGS3: Snake Eater with a bit of a twist and the third… Well it’s a surprise but it’s not really so much a fraught battle than running like a little girl to an extraction point and then doing the dance of the bullet sponge.
I was hoping for something more creative, like enemies of old, but so far there’s very little of that.
I’ll leave this review at that today and plough on to the end before I can give a total score. Something tells me that the next part will be less finger-pointing at downfalls and more along the lines of learning to enjoy the creativeness of The Phantom Pain… It’s not a full marks game for me at the minute, due to the barrenness of locations and lack of cinematic Kojima storytelling, but it’s also not a dud. Far from it, but it has glaring problems that have not been addressed by the majority of the gaming community that stop it from being that perfect ten.
Check back later in the week for the full account, progression of story and gameplay and whether or not I’ve received hate mail and death threats by men wearing sneaking suits and teaching their dog to wear an eyepatch, just because I haven’t been completely positive on everything in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain so far.